New rescue Mission Under the Army commander
The operation has begun to rescue 12 boys and their football coach who will need to dive out of the flooded Thailand cave where they have been trapped for more than two weeks, with officials saying Sunday morning that “today is D-Day”, the Associated Press said.
Chiang Rai acting Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn said 13 foreign and five Thai divers were taking part in the rescue and two divers will accompany each boy as they are gradually extracted. The operation began at 10 am (local time) and he said it would take at least 11 hours for the first person to be rescued.
The only way to bring them out of Tham Luang Nang Non in Chiang Rai province is by navigating dark and tight passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents, as well as oxygen-depleted air. A former Thai navy SEAL passed out making the dive Friday and died.
Experienced cave rescue experts consider an underwater escape a last resort, especially with people untrained in diving, as the boys are. The path out is considered especially complicated because of twists and turns in narrow flooded passages.
But the governor supervising the mission said earlier that mild weather and falling water levels over the last few days had created optimal conditions for an underwater evacuation that won’t last if it rains again.
Before announcing that the rescue was underway, authorities ordered the throngs of media that have gathered at the cave from around the world to leave.
“Everyone who is not involved with the operations has to get out of the area immediately,” police announced via loudspeaker at the site on Sunday morning, an Agence France-Presse report said.
“From the situation assessment, we need to use the area to help victims.”
The boys, ages 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach became stranded when they went exploring in the cave after a practice game June 23. Monsoon flooding cut off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days.
Their plight has transfixed Thailand and the rest of the world, with more than 1,000 journalists registered to cover the rescue staking out a small patch of muddy land at the top of a hill near the entrance to monitor the race against time.
The footballers were found by British cave diving specialists nine days after they ventured in, dishevelled and hungry, on a ledge several kilometres inside the cave.
Rescuers had fed a kilometres-long air pipe into the cave to restore oxygen levels in the chamber where the team was sheltering with medics and expert divers.
More than 100 exploratory holes had also been bored — some shallow, but the longest 400 metres deep — into the mountainside in an attempt to open a second evacuation route and avoid forcing the boys into a dangerous dive through submerged tunnels.
On Saturday Thai Navy SEALS published touching notes scrawled by the trapped footballers to their families, who had been waiting for them agonisingly close by outside the cave entrance.
The boys urged relatives “not to worry” and asked for their favourite food once they were safely evacuated.
In one, Pheerapat, nicknamed “Night”, whose 16th birthday the group were celebrating in the cave when they became stuck on 23 June, said: “I love you, Dad, Mum and my sister. You don’t need to be worried about me.”
The site near the cave’s entrance had swelled with media, volunteers and onlookers since the operation started, and authorities’ patience has worn thin.
Mission chief Narongsak said in recent days that medic teams had complained about the media presence and they told him “it will be a problem if they have a real emergency situation”.